Rural Heritage Logging Camp

Horse Logging at a Crossroads
by Rob Borsato

Horse logging is many different things to many different people. For those who use draft animals in their day-to-day logging work, it can be a meaningful and rewarding career. For landowners with timber on their land and for professionals managing forest lands, it is a harvesting system that can extract timber carefully. For people in the environmental camp, horse logging is often seen as the best way to get some wood out while still keeping forests intact. If you're a regional planner, or have concerns about the well being of your rural community, horse logging is a basic way to provide economic development and an opportunity for young people to find work close to home. For draft animal enthusiasts, horse logging is another reason to maintain the breeding, raising, and training of these beautiful animals; for others, it is an important symbol of our rich rural heritage.

With all these positive things associated with horse logging, you might find it incongruous when I tell you I think horse logging is at a critical crossroads as we break into the new millennium. I say this after reviewing two studies done on horse logging communities over the last few years. To my knowledge, these are the only studies that have been conducted with regional groups of horse loggers in North America.

The first study, done in 1998 through the School of Forestry at Auburn University, looked at 33 of about 50 horse loggers in northern Alabama. The second glimpse at horse loggers took place last winter in British Columbia, Canada, where I live. That study involved 22 of approximately 80 horse loggers.

Despite 3,000 miles separating the communities—with their different timber types, different log markets, dramatically different land ownership arrangements, different histories, and different cultures—the horse loggers in both communities share many commonalities. Some highlights:

HorseShoe Both have relatively small crews—two to three people;
HorseShoe The average age is "up there"—48 in BC; 55 in Alabama;
HorseShoe Few young people are entering the trade;
HorseShoe The average experience level is relatively high—13 years in BC; 20 in Alabama;
HorseShoe Modest capital investment in both jurisdictions‹usually including a truck, horse trailer, saws, rigging, and horses (in Alabama most own their own 3-axle side-load log trucks, while in BC half own some kind of machine to forward, deck, load and/or haul logs);
HorseShoe Neither have any formal horse logging training—in Alabama most learned from fathers or others who passed it on, in BC most are self taught;
HorseShoe Both face concerns regarding rising expectations to adapt to changes in forest policy.

Right away some of these points set off red flags for me. One has to do with the average age of the loggers, and another with the fact that few young people are attracted to the craft. The third involves how horse loggers learned the trade in the first place. When I put these all together I realized something was seriously wrong with this picture. When I inserted my personal scenario into the equation, I began to see just what was wrong. You see, I'm one of those loggers who for the last 20 years has been self-taught, and I know all too well how painfully slow and frustrating (not to mention dangerous) that can be. I also know how precious is any little bit of helpful advice I can glean from anyone. Just to complete this picture, I'm one of those loggers in the "up there" age group.

Now it may not be complimentary to consider yourself "average," but here I am, pretty much your typical average horse logger. As such, I'll be considering retiring within the next decade, but without knowing that young people will be ready to take my place, and with a lot of hard-earned experience and knowledge left unshared. I'm not boasting, here, but wanting to emphasize the knowledge, expertise, and training required (and often overlooked or taken for granted) to be a successful horse logger, an occupation that looks far easier than it really is. Within one generation we could lose most of this technology. The missing link is that young people are not entering the trade. How can we reverse this trend?

The answer is quite simple. We horse loggers need to boost our profile. We need to increase it with the general public, with professional foresters (who will be making more and more of the management decisions, but know nothing about what we can do), and most important we need to focus our attention on the youth. Through the public school system we can effectively reach many young people. Probably initial contacts should be made in the preteen years, with more thorough follow-ups in high school. These contacts may be a combination of going into the classroom equipped with a horse logging video or a similar teaching aid, and students coming into the forests to watch us work. Most horse loggers probably don't consider themselves teachers, but the positive and professional image we convey when we are working speaks volumes to young people. They just need to see it.

We can do many other things to better promote ourselves. Some are simple, inexpensive, everyday things, such as good signage on our horse trailers or at the roadside where we currently work, telling passersby who we are. Other methods of promotion are more involved and may mean pulling together with other horse loggers to pool our resources and collectively tackle big projects, such as producing a broadcast-quality promotional video or putting on an introductory horse logger training course. Getting horse loggers to work collectively is probably more challenging than trying to herd cats, because we all tend to be so terribly independent, but it may be an important way to reverse the trend revealed by the studies in Alabama and British Columbia. Whatever it takes, we need to tell people, especially our young people, who we are and what we can do, and help them learn to do it, too.


Rob Borsato of Quesnel, British Columbia, has been a professional horse logger for 20 years, chairs the Horse Loggers Association of British Columbia, and is president of the Cariboo Horse Loggers Association. This article appeared in the Autumn 2001 issue of Rural Heritage.

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29 April 2012 last revision